Just Where Is That Line That Should Not Be Crossed?

In June, James Bennet, New York Times’ editorial page editor, resigned following the controversial publication of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (regarding the federal response to the George Floyd demonstrations), and Stan Wischnowski, a 20-year veteran of the of The Philadelphia Inquirer, was dumped because he allowed a headline that read “Buildings Matter, Too.”

This week NYT opinionist Bari Weiss quit the paper, noting that she's done with the cancel culture that now has reached one of the nation’s most influential newsrooms. “[L]essons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned,” she wrote in her resignation. 

Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else….Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it…”



This is essentially the same debate raging on college campuses across the nation, as professors lament the freedom to say and teach what in recent years has become politically incorrect. They claim they should be protected by “academic freedom” that encourages examination of topics that might offend special interest groups or their identity politics issues such as same-sex marriage, the fluidity of gender, discussions about rape culture, and campus battles about safe spaces and trigger warnings.

As Vox senior correspondent German Lopez wrote: “One side wants to preserve a status quo that has historically protected a white identity that many white, straight, cisgender [non-trans], Christian Americans identify with. The other side wants to carve out an opening for other groups to be more accepted in mainstream America: black people, Latino immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and Muslim Americans, to name a few.”

Many who have written about the Weiss resignation have noted that what runs in a newspaper’s opinion section should be exempt from any kind of censorship (with the exception of blatant factual errors). But according to Weiss, that is no longer the case. Byliners that run contrary to the new micro-aggression culture are being avoided. 

While everyone seems to embrace the notion of freedom of speech, we all agree it should be unlawful to yell “Fire!!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.  There are also derogatory terms for nearly every possible race, sex, religion or culture that are slowly disappearing — probably not fast enough — largely as a result of the pressures created by identity politics. So, the issue is not freedom of speech per se, but who decides where the line is that can’t ever be crossed?

History often treats politically incorrect ideas as dangerous. Any number of authors have been murdered for what they wrote, and book burnings were not just a Nazi novelty. Perhaps this is what prompted poet and philosopher George Santayana to say, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

This is not to suggest we can’t learn from our past mistakes, and in the future use language that is non-aggressive and more inclusive. Yet who is to decide what topics are off-limits — or, as Weiss suggests, create a social media firestorm?

It is ironic that this issue surfaces in the Internet era, when anybody can pretty much write and publish whatever they want (protected by anonymity) and find an audience. But this is an important debate for responsible institutions like universities and newspapers. 

Just where is that line that should not be crossed?

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